Venezuelan first lady’s nephews face U.S. drug trial

November 8, 2016

November, 2 2016 (reuters)

Jury selection got underway in New York on Wednesday in the trial of two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady who are facing U.S. charges that they attempted a multimillion-dollar drug deal for a large amount of cash to help their family stay in power.

Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, appeared in Manhattan federal court wearing grey and blue sweaters, respectively, as jury selection began.

For much of Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty questioned potential jurors about their backgrounds and interests, as well their knowledge of Venezuelan politics.

After several rounds of eliminating candidates from the pool of 95 people, those under consideration included a nurse, an architect and a New York City call center employee.

The final jury will consist of 12 jurors plus four alternates. Jury selection will resume on Thursday.

Flores de Freitas, 31, and Campo Flores, 30, were arrested in Haiti in November 2015 in a case that has been an embarrassment for Maduro amid a political and economic crisis in Venezuela.

The case came amid several U.S. probes that have linked drug trafficking to individuals tied to the government in Venezuela, which the U.S. State Department says is a preferred route for moving drugs from South America onward to other areas.

Prosecutors accuse the nephews of trying to monetize their political connections and to use one of Venezuela’s airports to send hundreds of kilograms of cocaine to Honduras for trans-shipment to the United States.

Prosecutors say their goal in part was to obtain cash to counteract money they believed the United States was supplying to the opposition before Venezuela’s December 2015 National Assembly elections.

Maduro’s Socialist Party lost its parliamentary majority after the vote.

Prosecutors are expected to call as witnesses two U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informants who posed as Mexican drug cartel members and met in Caracas with the nephews in Caracas, recording their meetings in the process.

At trial, lawyers for the nephews are expected to call into question the DEA informants’ credibility. Both informants have admitted to lying to the DEA to secretly traffic drugs themselves.

The nephews’ lawyers had also sought to block the admission of recordings that prosecutors said showed the defendants had political motives for their drug deal.

Crotty rejected that motion on Wednesday, calling the recordings “probative of the defendants’ motive to carry out the scheme.”

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Tom Brown)